Moving On: An Ascension Sunday Reflection

By Joe LaGuardia

I once watched my father knock his brother half-way across a boxing ring with a single right cross.

I saw it on one of those old black and white films, homemade from some ancient camera and later transferred to a DVD.  There they were, sparring: My dad, the short, stocky 18-year old with what we–his kids–liked to call his Popeye arms; and my uncle, the tall, athletic Golden Gloves champ.  They were both in their signature Everlast trunks.

My uncle had the awards, the height and the reach.  He is beautiful to watch in the ring, like Muhammad Ali, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”  My dad, however, was the slow one, more passive.  All he had to go on were the size and strengths of his short arms.

In the film, I saw my uncle dancing around my dad.  Jab, jab, jab.  Body blow, slap to the helmet.  Jab, some missed crosses.

Then I saw it: a split second and a misstep by my uncle.  He got too close, and bang!–my dad’s right cross, like a cobra strike.  My uncle went across the ring into the ropes.  I’d never seen anything like it.

****

When I was young, I asked my father why he didn’t become a boxer like his brother or his father, Grandpa being the one in the family who coached his kids and the neighborhood kids, who trained the likes of Tony Danza and others who lived in their Brooklyn community.

Dad gave all kinds of excuses: bad knees, too smart to box, too busy, spending too much time chasing the women and marrying my mother.

When I pressed him again years later, the truth finally came out:

“I couldn’t hit another man,” he said, “I felt bad about it.”

The fact is that the man, my father, had hands of stone, but he couldn’t put them to good use in the ring.  He wasn’t at home there.  It was familiar, but foreign.

That’s how I feel when I look at the disciples on the day of ascension in Acts 1:1-11.  There Jesus was–back from the dead, a miracle, and the disciples did what all of us who lost a loved one only dream about doing: they held his hand again, was able to hug him and heard his voice.

But just as soon as Jesus came, it seemed, he left again and they thought all was lost.  It happened again, but this time Jesus whisked away into thin air.  Jesus couldn’t stay; he wasn’t at home on earth, not yet at least.  It was time for him to ascend to his father in heaven.  Just as Christ birthed the divine life into this world, it was time for him–as Barbara Brown Taylor once noted–to birth flesh into God’s world.

And just as my father wondered what good it was to have hands of stone without being able to use them, the disciples were left with hopes and dreams and an anticipation that seemed all but lost yet again.

They asked Jesus, “Now will you restore God’s kingdom of earth?”  And Jesus left them.

How do you live after a miracle like that?  How do you take the next step when that kind of question goes unanswered?

It was at that very moment that two angels showed up and tapped the disciples on the shoulders.

“What are you doing?  What are you looking at?” They asked, like divine security guards waving people on, “Nothing to see here, folks, keep it moving!”

The disciples, however, were just in the ring with Jesus.  Jesus was on their side, a spirit of stone, but now Jesus was gone just like that.  No butterflies and no bees.

*****

I think that the disciples did what any of us would have done: They headed back to a familiar place, an upper room in Jerusalem.  Maybe they figured that since Jesus appeared to them in this room after he resurrected from the dead, that maybe he will appear to them there again.  They stayed there and devoted themselves to prayer.

Peter seemed to be the first to speak, but its not about the future and there is no sign of some anticipation of things to come–that doesn’t come until Pentecost.  Rather, Peter seems to be just filling the time to do something, which is often better than doing nothing.  He speaks about Judas, talks about the scriptures for a few minutes, and gets down to business.

There, between Jesus’ ascension and the downpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we have what may have been the first Nominating Committee meeting in the church: They have to replace Judas, twelve is such a godly, biblical number after all.

There doesn’t seem to be any power in it, though.  There is no life, no authority–and theologically, that’s correct.  Jesus had yet to send the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promised would give the church power and authority to do what Christ did, to change the world, and continue to bridge heaven and earth.

The disciples had hands of stone, but no use for them yet.  They had a ring, but no authority to wipe the floor with their greatest nemesis, Satan.  And, although we feel badly for them, we get this eerie feeling that we somehow know exactly how they felt.

Who among us hasn’t had a dry spell?  Who hasn’t had a day or even a season in which we felt powerless, short-sighted, a day in which we only piddled around with busy work rather than anything exciting that has the power to change the world?

****

In a sermon on this passage of Scripture, one-time priest Barbara Brown Taylor commented that we feel for the disciples because we are no different from them half of the time.  We join them on that mountain with our necks crooning up towards heaven, and we wait.  We become aware that, at times, God seems absent, as if we are left in the ring to fight life’s fights alone.

But it is that very absence that also has the power to provide a sense of wonder and awe, that, in Taylor’s words, “brings us to church in search of God’s presence,” to go back to that sacred, familiar place again and again, where we saw Jesus last, “to recall best moments and argue about the details, to swap all the old stories until they begin to revive again,” to remember, to pray and rejoice.

Another scholar, John Polhill affirms that this text reveals a major plot thread in the book of Acts.  Acts does not have endings or conclusions.  Even as far as the last chapter, the book does not really end.  Rather, the book shows intermissions, followed by opportunities, promises, and new beginnings.   We are never sure whether church is an intermission or a new beginning, or both.

It is in that very search as a community of God’s people, however, in that recollection and retelling of the old, old story, that extraordinary things begin to happen because we do have an Advocate who fights on our behalf.  In a week, when we recall another old story of Pentecost, we will be reminded that we are not in the ring alone — we have all the power and authority that heaven can muster.  We will learn how God will put our hands of stone back to work, not to harm or punch or hurt, but heal and deliver and reconnect.

****

For now, I guess we just have to live with the fact that we are looking up.  Angels may come and tap us on the shoulders and tell us to move on, move on because when we get stuck looking up, we fail to look around.

When you look around, that’s when you start to notice things–that’s when you begin to see Jesus working in your midst, when you sense the Holy Spirit ready to empower you.

It may not lead to living into the New Heaven and the New Earth that is promised us just yet, but we’re getting awfully close.  Awfully close.

“People of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven….Keep it moving, keep it moving.  Nothing to see here.”

4 Easy Ways to Support Your Church Staff

By Joe LaGuardia

In the mid-1990s, G. Lloyd Rediger published Clergy Killers, which argued that some churches are so destructive and dysfunctional that they have actually persuaded some staff to give up ministry altogether.   Churches not adept in conflict management or basic communication skills run the risk of abusing staff or, in the least, draining staff energy to the point of burn-out.

Sometimes this happens when congregations wield power over staff with little risk to the parishioners’ own well-being.  Unlike employers who have shareholders and CEOs to answer to, parishioners try to call the shots aggressively or passive-aggressively without having to risk their own financial or personal resources.  It is an unfair advantage that congregations have over the staff they employ.

Many churches, however, are wonderful congregations to call home.  Many treat staff fairly, have appropriate policies that protect all parties involved, and are intentional in building healthy communities that minimize dysfunction and distrust.  How to do that?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are four easy ways to support your staff at church:

Understand the job.  Jobs at church–from administrator or accompanist to pastor or pastoral counselor–are not the same as jobs in the secular world.  Every staff position in a church is designed to achieve specific goals while creating a sacred space for people to meet Christ while on campus.

Consider the average job–a mechanic, say.  What if you were a mechanic, and someone “dropped in” on you to chat with you about a concern every five minutes?  You would not be a productive mechanic.  Dropping in on staff at a church, however, is a regular part of our jobs.  We make time for it because we know that ministry takes place most often in the interruptions of life rather than in the daily routines.  A mechanic’s time is valuable, and problems can be handled in specific ways.  Church staff is no different!

Understanding the job also means knowing what it takes to do a particular job.  For instance, a pastor may “hide” in her office for ten hours a week and some parishioners may feel slighted, but how else might a pastor preach a great sermon if she does not have time to prepare and write one?  Do not use your own experiences to tell a staff person how to do his or her job.

Build trust.  Church leaders learn that building trust with a congregation is the first step in effective ministry.  Trust is the catalyst for growth and the linchpin for getting things done for the Kingdom of God.

Trust must be earned, and trust goes both ways!  Parishioners must behave and communicate in a way that builds trust with staff–to be people of their word, to keep confidences, to pray for staff.

Trust comes by being interested in staff personally.  You don’t have to be a staff member’s best friend, but why not ask how his child is doing in school or about any new movies he has watched lately?  Talk about something other than church, and listen intently.  Be concerned.  It builds trust, and when you have an issue, your ability to handle it with staff will go much more smoothly if your previous interactions were positive, personal ones.

Think like an employer.  For all practical purposes, congregations employ staff.  That means that the staff at a church–even the senior pastor–does not have a traditional employer that can help negotiate the rigors of the job.  If you were to think like an employer, what would change about how you treat your staff?  Let me give a few suggestions:

Employers lean on policies to protect employees.  For church staff, that means encouraging staff to take their vacations, find time to spend with family, but also be held accountable for punctuality, professionalism, and preparedness in their job.

Employers work with employees to maximize strengths and curb weaknesses.  Church staff is no different–members have strengths and weaknesses that define who they are and how they work.  Do not micromanage staff, but work with each one in order to encourage professional development by having room for people to be who they are in all of their idiosyncrasies.  Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Employers celebrate employees.  Form a staff support team that handles all of the special holidays and birthdays of your church’s staff.  Shower the church administrator when its Administrator Appreciation Week, for instance.  Collect a few gift cards, balloons, and cupcakes when a staff member has a birthday.  Write cards of encouragement and let your staff know that you are praying for them.  It makes a difference!

Stay invested.  The worst thing that can happen is that a parishioner goes to another church when that parishioner does not get her way.  If you have an issue with a staff member, deal with it directly, immediately, and honestly; but, be prepared for the response.  If you want a specific outcome to a problem, help the staff member address it, but know that you may not always get your way!

In fact, the church does not revolve around you, your expectations, or your personal preferences.  But you are a part of the discerning community that makes the church a part of the Body of Christ.  Discern and pray with staff as things arise, don’t be antagonistic or petty.  Be patient and have an openness of heart.  You and your staff are on the same team, there is no room for hostility or animosity.

At the end of the day, church is supposed to be a source of joy and comfort, of fulfilling the Great Commission and of ministry not misery.  If something is not going well, it is usually not because God is not present or the Spirit is not at work.  It is likely because we have done something to railroad the human relationships that keep the wheels of the church going in a forward, harmonious and productive direction.  I hope that these four tips will make a difference!

Politics, Bluegrass, and Punishment: A Longing for Lent (again)

By Joe LaGuardia

I came off of a very productive Lent this past season.  My Lent involved fasting from politics–from listening, watching, reading, and, well, reading anything having to do with politics (and, in many cases, religion).

That was a good exercise.  Before Lent, I was up too late watching CNN, wasting away in the midnight hours reading The Washington Post, and subjecting my family to the XM politics station during road trips.  It was bad.

Lent is not only a time to give up something just to give it up, but to consider why that which you are giving up has detrimental effects in your life.  While I fasted from politics and yearned for the XM, I had plenty of time to pray and reflect on my politics addiction.  The news was definitely affecting my life, setting me up for exhaustion, and (at worst) producing in me a moodiness that rippled through my whole family.

I decided that once Lent came to an end, I would limit my access to that kind of toxin.  It has been about three days now, and I have not watched CNN or Fox. I only stayed up late one night to watch clips from The Daily Show and read articles on my cellphone.  I’ve listened to the XM channel, but not while my family was in the car.  Fair enough.

Yet, as I have taken in only a spoonful of the news, I have already seen the affects draw on my mood.  Since Sunday, I’ve been annoyed by a terrible United Airlines incident, frustrated with a misstatement (and I’m being polite here) about the Holocaust from Sean Spicer, and flustered by an inability to assess a coherent foreign policy strategy from the State Department as it relates to our allies and those not so friendly to the United States.  I can’t make heads or tales of it.

But in catching up and staying abreast of the news (as minimally as possible, mind you!), I have come to realize something that frightens me a bit: It seems that many policies and the politics of the day have not turned a corner to bring about the type of bipartisan compromise and legislation that I had hoped for since the election in November.  Rather, there seems to be a reckoning or sense of punishment in contemporary politics that has stifled the promise of good, modest governance.

Could it be that healthcare reform–much needed, for sure–did not happen not because there weren’t better plans on the table, but because the spirit in which reform arose was out of an eagerness to punish the opposing party?  And, by way of that, appearing to punish people who have benefited from the Affordable Healthcare Act?

Could it be that a coherent foreign policy has not surfaced because we are still trying to punish belligerent nation-states that stand in the way of peace and progress throughout the world?

The election is now five months over, and I am still hearing about emails, Benghazi, healthcare, financial crises, conflicts of interest, careless rhetoric, and unwieldy town hall meetings even this week alone–Holy Week!  I watched a video in which an innocent doctor was bludgeoned and punished for not volunteering his seat for which he reserved and paid on an airplane.

So, please give me Lent again.  Put me into a cave, bury my head in the sand.  Let me live in the dark where I can stumble on my own with as little damage to others as I can possibly muster.  I’ve even started listening to bluegrass more than politics in the car to stay grounded, to live into a sense of being at home as I recall the many vacations and sabbaticals that we took from the world by venturing in the foothills of North Georgia.

But then again, its Easter.  My sermon for Sunday quotes Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  That’s not just about evil–(don’t read into my quote, ya’ll; this is not a partisan article!).  Its about the choice of either doing nothing or working constructively–together–to bring about the change and transformation we all long to see in the world.

Right now, we have to change the tone of our politics.  We have to move from punishment to progress, from bickering and hostility to conversation and compromise, from one-upsmanship to friendship.  It doesn’t take an act of congress, it only takes a commitment to get over ourselves and do what is right, for people to stand up to corporate and big-money interests, and for voters and constituents to be involved in the workings of government.  As the adage goes the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and the only way to be the presence of Christ in the world is to be present in the world.

I guess the cave will have to wait.  Christ calls me to live in the light, not the darkness of the tomb.  Christ calls me — and you — to live into God’s future by God’s miracles, not the present realities that stumble along by happenstance and coincidence.  Its a word of hope, but easier said than done.  As Holy Week unfolds, I’ll still wrestle with that whole notion.  I have a feeling that bluegrass will continue to soothe my aching ears and heart until then.